14 October 2007

Mythology and the Ineffable

I would like to suggest that there are places in Lewis's work where he committed the unavoidable error of the religious writer, especially the mystic. This is the central paradox that an ecstatic experience is beyond comprehensionand therefore beyond words; yet the mystic employs words to express it. Of course, it would not be recognized as ineffable if an attempt were not made to communicate it. Lewis was aware of this powerful paradox. In advising a young writer, Lewis warned: “If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across” (Letters III:766). Earlier, he had written: “in a sense, one can hardly put anything into words: only the simplest colors have names, and hardly any of the smells. The simple physical pains and (still more) the pleasures can’t be expressed in language” (Letters II:947). How much more a transcendent mystical encounter with Deity!

Now, Lewis himself was not a mystic. He was a plain Church of England man. However, several of his characters undergo mystical experiences—-Ransom in Perelandra (218-19), Jane in That Hideous Strength (318-19), Orual in Till We Have Faces (308). Orual is the best example, since she is a pre-Christian figure. The ambiguity of mystical experience enabled Lewis to describe Orual’s visions and revelations in language similar to that of, say, Julian of Norwich. Since mysticism is non-sectarian, Lewis could use a pagan living in the time of the Greek Golden Age to speak universal spiritual—-even Christian—-truths.

But in his obsessive attempt to choose the correct words for his longing, Lewis forgot that, as Carl Jung explained, its nature was compromised by taxonomy. Placing it into certain words limited it. Lewis must have felt this problem, for as soon as he settled on one signifier or collection of terminology, he abandoned it/them and tried again. This is a microcosm of his essential dilemma: unifying fact and fiction, theology and imagination, Christianity and paganism.

Lewis was, in some ways, too much of a scholar for his own literary good, always imitating, modeling, copying, and modifying. While he had many novel thoughts of his own, he could hardly find a new form in which to shape them, for he had read too many books and memorized all he read. The Pilgrim’s Regress is a highly esoteric intellectual update of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; The Great Divorce is a parody of Dante’s Divine Comedy with an appearance by George MacDonald; the Narnia Chronicles are a gallimaufry of mythologies; the Cosmic Trilogy is a poly-generic Paradise Lost with Greek, Roman, and medieval mythology-astrology-theology mixed into science fiction and Christian evangelical tract; only Till We Have Faces is pure, triumphant Myth.

Perhaps this literary posturing expresses Lewis’s refusal to move forward. In his scholarly work he was always looking to the past. He lectured on medieval and renaissance literature and wrote three sizable scholarly works in that field: The Allegory of Love, The Discarded Image, and the sixteenth-century volume of the Oxford History of English Literature. He also tried to revive outmoded forms—such as allegory and epic—and meters such as Sapphics, Asclepiads, Alcaics, Hendecasyllabics, and Scazons (Poems v). Was all of this a rejection of modernity?

Perhaps it was. But the pendulum swings again, back to tastes more like his than like Eliot’s. One scholar believes that Lewis’s Sehnsucht is a basic continuity between nineteenth and twentieth century literature and is useful for understanding modern literature (Carnell 191). He suggested that scientific naturalism needed to wind down before Myth could regain the ascendant (Carnell 126). Perhaps that is happening. Relativity and quantum mechanics have undermined much of the scientific certainty many people expected by the year 2000. The theories of Freud are giving way to holistic psychiatry: “Along with the development of fields such as genetics and tools such as neuroimaging, psychiatry moved away from psychoanalysis back to a focus on physical medicine and neurology and to search for the causes of mental health conditions within the genome and the neurochemistry of the brain” (Wikipedia). With the making of The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe into best-selling films, fantasy sales are hot in America. Along with Narnia on the top ten films of 2005 were three other fantasy hits: The War of the Worlds, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith (Cinema Blend). Children are hungry for magical beauty, tales of wonder and adventure. Nancy Drew and Hardy boys mysteries, The Babysitter’s Club, etc., are giving way to Harry Potter and Eragon.

So perhaps in the long run C. S. Lewis’s failure is a success. He never managed to define “It” to his own or our satisfaction; but in Till We Have Faces he finally admitted his failure and stopped classifying, defining, categorizing. He painted a vague, liminal, suggestive picture of Orual’s encounter with the god, and stopped short of describing (or naming!) the god Himself. Orual heard the voice of the god and looked up, but the “vision to the eye had, I think, faded one moment before the oracle to the ear." Lewis did not describe the god, I believe, for two reasons. First, because leaving the encounter to the reader’s imagination allows his audience to participate in his “unsatisfied desire.” This is perhaps the most powerful example of beautiful indeterminacy in all of Lewis’s work. The fragment is more suggestive, and thus more powerful, than any description could be. Second, he did not describe the god because he could not: a god’s appearance is ineffable. There are moments of slippage in this description where Lewis tries to modify language so that it can bear the weight of its message. He uses “the most dreadful, the most beautiful” as nouns instead of adjectives; he repeats “dread” and “beauty”; both are attempts to make language do more than it can do and convey to the human brain more than words can convey. But he stopped short before the signifier utterly failed, for what signs can visually describe a god?

Thus Lewis serves as midwife at the reader’s imaginative childbirth: he does not present an image of the god, but the reader will picture it him/herself. And he has turned religion into (not a fantasy, but) a fantastical, fantastic story. Thus we, along with Lewis, can continued to find satisfaction in a hungry filling, a consummate longing for the Divine Being.


Rosie Perera said...

[continuing the attempt to revive your tradition of posting what we've been reading and listening to and watching]

Read: Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith & Mystery by Gregory Wolfe
Listened To: When Gods Walked the Earth - Myths of Ancient Greece (Portable Professor series)
Watched: The Staircase (documentary/thriller about a real life murder trial of a novelist accused of killing his wife, whose defense argues that she died by falling down the stairs; in the end you still aren't really sure whether he did it or not)

Thanks for this series of posts on Lewis and mythology you've been writing. After reading this one, I've gotten over my temporary skepticism of C.S. Lewis studies as a serious scholarly pursuit. I had heard a comment once by someone who said that a large number of Christians who go after PhDs in literature choose to write their dissertation on Lewis. This person seemed to think that (a) Lewis was overstudied and there wasn't enough left to write about him for people to keep pursuing PhDs on him; (b) Christians tend to like to stay "safe" in their areas of study; Lewis is palatable to the evangelical mind because he doesn't challenge their theology and stretch them outside their comfort zone. But you have proven to me that Lewis (whom I've never doubted was worth reading) -- is indeed worth writing serious scholarly articles about. After my somewhat ignorant critical comment on the poem in which you used the word Sehnsucht, you've made me want to read Carnell's Bright Shadow of Reality: Spiritual Longing in C.S. Lewis, which you didn't mention the title of but which I found via Google. I don't know enough about C.S. Lewis scholarship to know whether to take that comment about PhDs on him seriously, but it's certainly worth writing and presenting papers on him, and blogging on him!

Iambic Admonit said...

Read: If I Should Speak, a fascinating (if poorly written) novel about a quasi-Christian girl becoming a Muslim.
Reading: The Count of Monte Cristo
Listened to: pirated Arabic MP3s my sister bought in Egypt (don't tell!)
Watched: Hornblower, the fifth movie, I think (we're hooked)

Rosie, funnily enough, I agree with that comment about PhDs in Lewis, even though I wrote my big Master's degree paper on him. I do think it's kind of the easy way out for Christians. We want to be literary scholars, so we pick a very good but still second-tier writer who expresses our dearest beliefs extremely well, and happens to write very good fiction (and bad poetry), too. Yes, good scholarly work can be done on Lewis ( that's what I'm trying to do!), but I sure don't want to get put into the limited category of "Lewis scholar." I'm hoping to branch out before too long and do some work on one of the "real" guys, like Dante!!